Jason Hammel's brilliance leads Cubs over Rangers

Jason Hammel's brilliance leads Cubs over Rangers

Jason Hammel had worked all offseason with Saturday in mind.

After fading in the second half each of the past two seasons, Hammel shed some weight over the winter and came back determined to stay consistent and effective throughout the entire season.

The veteran right-hander got off to a great start in that regard in his first post All-Star Break outing Saturday, shutting down the Texas Rangers in a 3-1 Cubs victory in front of 41,346 fans at Wrigley Field.

Hammel allowed only one run (which scored on a wide throw from Anthony Rizzo on Elvis Andrus' infield single in the second inning) on three hits and a walk, striking out seven. He went six innings to lower his season ERA to 3.34 and improve his record to 8-5.

Last season, Hammel posted a 2.86 ERA in the first half, but followed that up with a 5.10 mark after the All-Star Break. In 2014, his season was split into a 3.01 first-half ERA and a 4.31 second-half mark.

But after Saturday's game, Hammel didn't want to make too much about his second-half fades, preferring to start a new chapter and leave the past in the past.

"I just go a game at a time," he said. "I'm not even thinking about it. I knew that question was going to come up. As long as we want to focus on it, we can talk about it.

"But I'm just going game-by-game, pitch-by-pitch, trusting the routine that I've put together with some help. Just trying to come out and start off on a good foot."

The Cubs have now allowed just one run and eight hits in 18 innings to the American League's best team to start the second half after the pitching staff slumped badly prior to the break.

[SHOP: Grab your own Cubs All-Star Game gear]

Rizzo drove home the Cubs' first two runs on a two-out double in the third off Rangers starter Yu Darvish. 

Darvish made his return off the disabled list and struck out nine Cubs, but lasted only 4.1 innings as he was limited to 90 pitches.

"Darvish, my god," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "You can just see when he's well. I've seen it before. It's beyond electric stuff, what he's got."

Matt Szczur drove in the Cubs' third and final run of the game with a pinch-hit single up the middle in the sixth.

It was the second straight day with an RBI pinch-hit for Szczur, who ranks third in the majors with 10 pinch hits.

"Matty coming off the bench, being aggressive and getting another big hit," Maddon said. "That was a big moment, too, to give us a little bit of breathing room."

Adam Warren, Travis Wood and Hector Rondon shut the door for Hammel and the Cubs, with Rondon picking up his 15th save in the process.

Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Who has more fun on the diamond, Javier Baez or Yolmer Sanchez?


Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast: Who has more fun on the diamond, Javier Baez or Yolmer Sanchez?

Ozzie Guillen and David DeJesus join Leila Rahimi on Wednesday's podcast. After Tuesday's game-winning hit and second self-inflicted Gatorade bath the guys wonder if anyone has more fun on the field than Yolmer Sanchez. Jim DeShaies joins the conversation and brings Javy Baez to the table.

Plus, Manny Mania continues to swirl in Chicago. Finally, what should be the White Sox plan for calling up their top prospects?

Listen to the full Baseball Night in Chicago Podcast right here:

The trade rumors aren't going away, but that hasn't changed Cubs' faith in Addison Russell

The trade rumors aren't going away, but that hasn't changed Cubs' faith in Addison Russell

How much do the Cubs really need Manny Machado? 

They entered play Tuesday leading the National League in runs per game, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and run differential.

That doesn't sound like a team desperate for another bat and would trade future assets to go all-in for only a few months of a player, even one as good as Machado.

Of course, the Cubs went out and got walloped 10-1 by the Indians Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, but that had more to do with awful pitching and Machado won't do a thing to help that area of the game. In fact, Machado would actually hurt the team's run prevention given he's a worse defensive shortstop than Addison Russell.

All that being said, the Machado rumors probably won't be going anywhere until the Baltimore Orioles deal their shortstop to either the Cubs or another team, so Russell will have to get used to hearing his name included in such conversations.

Any Cubs package headed to Baltimore for Machado likely has to start with Russell, the Cubs' 24-year-old shortstop who won't become a free agent until after the 2021 season.

"He would be robotic if it did not [affect him]," Joe Maddon said. "I think honestly if he was 7, 8, 10 years into the league and something like this was being bandied about, probably not nearly as much. But the age that he's at, the experience level that he's at, I think it just can't help but have an impact.

"So we just gotta continue to nurture him here. I talk to him all the time. There's certain things you can't control. You can't control what's being said, but you can control how you react to it. That's about the best thing we could encourage him to do and he'll get our support."

Maddon said he gives Russell a hug and reminds him of "something" before every game as he tries to massage the confidence of a player that is currently the shortstop of a Cubs team with World Series expectations.

Russell doesn't turn 25 until next January, yet many people act like he's already peaked as a player. 

He's two years removed from hitting 21 homers and driving in 95 runs as part of the 2016 championship season.

2017 was a lost year for so many reasons — from off-field issues to shoulder and foot problems — and Russell has only 1 homer in the first quarter of the 2018 season, but he's taken other strides this year.

He currently boasts career best marks in walk percentage, strikeout percentage, line drive percentage, groundball percentage and is using the opposite field more than ever.

The power hasn't come yet this year, but a .343 on-base percentage is a pretty solid complementary piece to one of the best all-around defenders in the game.

Russell ranks 10th in baseball in Defensive Runs Saved among all players, tied for second among shortstops. Fielding metrics are not perfect, but Machado is 133rd in DRS among qualifed fielders and 24th among shortstops, so there is clearly a gap between the two players' glovework.

Maddon has never shown any outward sign of altering his belief in Russell becoming a dynamic player.

"Addy's gonna continue to progress to the point where all his game is gonna become consistent," Maddon said. "And even beyond that, who do you like better at shortstop [defensively] right now? ... His throwing's dramatically improved. His baserunning decisions — I know he had a gaffe in Cincinnati, but for the most part, he's gotten better.

"So what we're really talking about is his hitting. That's where people get hung up about this game all the time. I see absolute progress in that, also. He just came off a hot week and he had a couple tough days and then all of a sudden, it becomes exaggerated. Why? Because he's 24.

"I think the sky is the limit for this guy. He's a confidence guy like most of us are. As he's feeling good about himself, that's when the line drives start to occur. I mean, one of the biggest hits so far was the ball over the centerfielder's head in Atlanta [last week].

"And he always has this tendency to do some really good work when it matters most. He's been that guy already. So just be patient. He's just gonna keep getting better."

Remember, Russell is the same guy that hit a grand slam and drove in 6 runs in Game 6 of the World Series in Cleveland and started every game at shortstop that postseason. Every year Russell has been the Cubs' shortstop, the season has included a trip to the National League Championship Series.

"Our front office has always been one to make moves and they’re not afraid to do things and we’ve seen that," Kris Bryant said. "We won a world series because of that, getting [Aroldis] Chapman and some of the other guys we got, but we don’t put one ounce of thought into that because we’re happy with the guys we have here.

"The effort that everybody puts forth day in and day out when they’re on the field is spectacular. You know we have a great group of guys here and until someone is gone, we’re going to play with what we’ve got and continue to play the way we have. So, not much thought about [trade rumors]."

Russell has also quietly been very productive over the last month after a slow start to the season. Since April 26, he boasts a .306/.386/.444 slash line (.830 OPS).

It's still hard to see the Cubs willing to give up the next 3.5 years of Russell for 3 months of Machado and MAYBE a slightly better chance of re-signing the superstar this winter.

"I was talking about a 24-year-old hitter, what about a 24-year-old human being having to process all of that?" Maddon asked. "Whether he's hearing it or not from anywhere here, it's just mom, dad, brother, friend, former coach on the phone — 'What's that all about?' 

"He's gotta be inundated with that conversation. He didn't ask for that. He's just doing his job."